The patient didn’t want to let go. Their loved ones couldn’t let go either. They all knew what was happening. The patient was dying. The loved ones were crying. The clinicians listened and were guided by what the patient and their family wanted. It was difficult to let them have their way, but it was important for them to exert the only control they had on the situation.
As Palliative Care clinicians we are trained to be compassionate, to want to do something to try to ease another’s suffering. It’s terrible knowing you can make someone more comfortable but you are not allowed to act. It can make you feel powerless and useless. Possibly what the patient and their family have felt throughout their illness experience.
I arrived in the morning and I looked at the little table in our waiting area. I was hoping there would be a candle lit, indicating the death of a patient. There was no candle. The nurses reported that our patient had a rough night. No sleep with lots of distress, the family also distressed and sleepless.
On examination, I saw distress, confusion, discomfort and terror writ large in the patient’s eyes. They seemed to stare through us, into another plane of existence. Concern was etched into the tear-lined faces of the gathered family. They asked to speak to our team in a few minutes time. Their night shift needed to check in with their morning shift.
“I’m sorry but we just wanted to spend as much time as possible with them.”
“There’s no need to apologise, we understand, and you don’t need to explain. You were trying to do your best to hold on to each other. I’m sorry things keep on changing.”
“Please do what you need to. Too much suffering. We can’t bear it.”
“Do you trust us?”
“Yes, please make them comfortable.”
“We’ll start some medications to calm things down, to decrease the distress. We’ll come back in four hours time to check for effect. If it hasn’t worked we will adjust the doses. They’re likely to become sleepy because they are exhausted and haven’t slept for days. They might not be able to wake up again.”
“How much time is left?”
“It might be days at the most, but it is likely much, much shorter. They’re too unwell and could die at anytime. We’re going to get you all through this.”
My team prescribed the medications and I took them for a quick break.
Later in the day, everyone sighed in relief after the last breath was taken.
One of the toughest cases in my fifteen years of full-time Palliative Care.